Friday, September 15, 2006

WW Collab: Online Beginnings

september 2006
most of us have been online for quite a while…what got you started and what keeps you coming back for more?

The irony of my online presence both past and presence never ceases to amaze or amuse me.

When I was a kiddo, the only constant access to a computer I had was my grandmother’s C64.  My grandfather had shown great interest in “computers” (large room sized machines) and she had hoped to inspire his past interest by getting one of these newfangled devices.  He didn’t care at all for the thing and to my recollection, he never so much as touched the keyboard.  My grandmother learned quite a bit, though, and went to a great effort to let her grandkids make use of it so it wouldn’t go to waste.  She bought tape players for it so we could play games, then eventually an actual - gasp - disk drive.  (Floppy, mind you, back when floppy disks were floppy.)  A friend of my mom (mucho tech geek… the type of guy I would have fallen for had I been 15 years older) encouraged my grandma to buy a modem for the darn thing.  That confused all of us.  A… what?  For what purpose?  He spoke of using the modem so that his computer could “talk” to our computer and vice versa.  At that point, I couldn’t figure out why computers would want to socialize nor what they’d even say to each other except 1001001, and really, that seems like a very boring conversation, indeed.  I don’t think the modem was every properly made to work and mostly served to collect dust in some drawer somewhere.

When I went off to college, now, that’s when the real fun began, and I don’t just mean sneaking off to TDO’s dorm for late night sex, either.  Nah, during one of my first days there, an acquaintance asked if I’d set up my email account, yet.  My.  Huh?  Whassat?  He dragged me to the computer lab where my eyes glazed at the sight of so many computers in one area, just waiting for my loving touch.  (This before my ‘net addiction!!)  It took me a few minutes to remember how to login and what to do once I had, but once I got into the swing, I didn’t just stop with mastering this amazing technology called “email”.  I took it a step further and began trolling the college’s BBS.  There were a few “oldbies” who had been around for a year or two (hee), even one who had actually written the code for the BBS (perhaps for a school project, maybe just for fun?) but most of us were very, very new to the ‘net and all it had to offer.

The most appealing part of the ‘net at the time was being able to socialize with other, erm, geeks.  I spose that’s still the case to some extent.  It was easy to see who was into what, since you could see who was writing (or reading) in what boards.  The poets (or wanna bes, at least) would hang out in the poetry board, those who were into stories would hang there, those who wanted to argue would debate, well, just about anywhere.  There was gossip, there was role playing, there was, well, mostly a lot of nothingness, pretty much like now only to a much smaller scale.

What’s ironic (then and now) was sitting right next to the person to whom you were typing.  I’d be writing some snarky/funny/obnoxious email to Doug, or we’d exchange snarky emails back and forth and giggle our silly heads off while making fun of people in the computer lab who couldn’t hear or see what it was we were saying.  To this day, either one of us will break into fits of laughter at the mention of, “Welcome to the VAX!” due to one of those (sorry had to stop to laugh, seriously…) moments in the lab.  I’d post up some sappy romantic poem that was none the less cryptic in for whom it was meant (a la blog style) and the love interest to whom I would be inwardly dedicating my work would be sitting two computers down.  Now, I’m as likely to IM TDO to tell him it’s dinnertime as to use my voice.  Odd, that.

Speaking of TDO, we initially met face to face when Robyn (a mutual friend) dragged me over to meet, “Jellyfish Heaven!!”  Ooh? Aah?  Who the hell was this Jellyfish Heaven?  Apparently, a guy who frequented the BBS and worked in the computer lab.  Also apparently, a good looking guy for whom all the girls pined.  I was less than impressed at first meeting.  He seemed… I dunno.  Just another guy.  Robyn was so gushy and fluttery, I figured he must be something special, but whatever it was eluded me at the time.

It wasn’t until weeks later when I was happily (and I thought quite proficiently) poking around in email in the computer lab when TDO finally made an impression upon me.  All of a sudden, without warning, a strange error message repeatedly spammed across my screen about 50 or 100 times.  I thought surely I must have broken something or done something dumb.  Skittish as I was of technology, I was always worried I’d mangle things beyond repair and it looked like I had, since the error message wouldn’t keep popping up over my screen.  Well, what one has to understand (and I didn’t then) was that the VAX system had this cool mail notification type thing.  If you got new mail while working, it’d say, “New mail on node (whatever) from (email address) “Email Name”“.  TDO had changed his email name to look like an error message.  So, in bright orange letters I was seeing something to the effect of:

New mail on node (whatevermystudentnumberwas) from tdo’sstudentnumber “WARNING: SOME TECHNICAL WARNING WHICH I CAN NOT FOR THE LIFE OF ME REMEMBER BUT WHICH SOUNDED PRETTY SCARY!”




I was very uncomfortable with asking for help.  I didn’t want anyone to KNOW I’d broken the computer.  As the message kept scrolling I looked nervously around the computer lab.  TDO perked up, but before I could work up the nerve to ask for his help, I decided I’d try to logout and see if the error message would stop.  Well, of course, logged out, I wouldn’t get any new mail notifiers, so it seemed “fixed”.  I sighed a huge sigh of relief, then logged back in.  To, you know, a hundred some odd new mail messages.  I was shocked and horrified, but not ready to admit that I needed help.  TDO came up behind me and said, “Excuse me, I see you have some strange activity going on at your station, mind if I take a look?”

Whew, I wouldn’t have to ask for help after all.  He entered my email, hopped on in and deleted all of the excess emails in one quick command, then offered his charming boyish smile.  “All better,” he said smoothly.  Oh, my HERO!  Heh, I didn’t know until much later that my “hero” had actually been the one to set up the problem, literally using his little mail bomb program to send me mass quantities of email to get my attention.  Still, it opened the conversation for us and set the dynamics for our relationship for years to come.  He needs to be my hero.  He needs to be the one to rescue me and “save” me, even though I’m generally quite competent.  As a result, he’ll often devise ways of “stranding” me so that I am forced to need him.  On my smarter days, I allow myself to merely ask for his help and remind him how much I need him so that he doesn’t have to invent disasters to fix for me.

My hunger for tech didn’t stop there.  Soon I was role playing on MU* (text based role playing games.)  Then when I changed colleges, after having taken a year off to have my son, Devon, I started getting interested in this mysterious thing simply called, “The Web.”  It was said that with a simple free program (imagine… free!) called Internet Explorer, you could load up content that held both text and graphics!  There were capabilities, even, of having sound added on to these documents meant for the “Web”.  Can you imagine?  Graphics?  Sound?  I was incredulous, but I wanted to see it for myself.  I begged my paramour (who had graduated with a computer degree from the college that I was attending) to take me to their computer lab and show me how to not only use this “Web” thing but to make something, myself.  He showed me the very basics of HTML and I think was shocked and maybe even a little disappointed that I showed more desperate and intense interest in HTML than in him.  Still, if nothing other than Sebastian and my knowledge of HTML came of that relationship, at least it was worthwhile to me.

Soon I was designing ultra busy, ultra hideous, glitzy glamored web pages with dancing graphics and cheesy .wav files.  I don’t regret those pages, as horrid as they may have been.  They were all part of the learning process and have lead me to where I am today.  Every day it seemed I would find something else I wanted to know how to do, not necessarily because I had any great need to do it, but because I wanted to see if it could be done.  From tables to color changes to forms, I was rapidly gaining a sturdy knowledge of what to do and how to do it.

After moving to California - for the first time away from family and friends and all I had known my whole life - the ‘net became an even more vital tool for me.  I had no social outlet.  Depression became the monster that always won, and I needed whatever support I could gather to me.  I made friends like snooze and Firewalk.  I joined depression support email lists where I met Toni and Aimee.  My world of isolation may have remained so outwardly, but as soon as I fired up my CPU, I was no longer alone.  I could laugh and cry and be bawdy and jolly with whomever I wanted, nearly whenever I wanted.  It was a huge relief, and perhaps even a life saver at the time.

In the end, I think that is the key of why I am still so very attached to the Internet.  I’ve never exactly been a social butterfly outwardly, but that doesn’t stop the driving need for companionship and socializing.  The Internet has provided a very valuable platform to experience some facsimile of those experiences.  The irony is that in enveloping myself so deeply in online relationships, I allow myself no time, space or skills to develop “real life” friendships.  While I know how to approach someone in a MMORPG, I know how to dig up profiles in various chat platforms to find users with common interests, I am able to sift through literally hundreds of mommy email support groups to find one that would suit me best, I haven’t a clue how to start up a conversation in a checkout line or what to say to other parents while at school functions.  Instead of a tool for support, it has become an enabler of my disabilities and failings. 

Having recognized this some time ago, I have made further efforts to try to “reach outside the box” and find and make friends locally or at least to make myself known to neighbors and parents of my kids’ friends.  I’m not entirely satisfied with the results, but I do recognize the need to continue to make progress.  Still, I find comfort and enjoyment in my online experience.  There is a feeling of success when playing games and a sense of deep accomplishment after designing a particularly pretty web page layout.  I take joy in writing where others can read me.  I love having the opportunity to reach out and get to know people I otherwise would never know.  Tempering these pleasures with moderation will be, I believe, the key to meshing my online life with my, physical one.  Or so I hope.

What do you think, readers?  Are we living in virtual reality a little too much or is virtual reality becoming the reality of our society?

Posted by Liberty at 10:32 PM

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